Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

john jefferson selve

city of the same

text by JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE

Paris has always been a hard, clannish city, socially codified in the extreme. That’s also what makes it paradoxically appealing, even fascinating, beyond its visible beauty, beyond its rigidity. Paris doesn’t mingle. Paris doesn’t renew itself. Paris is the city of the same. Each district conforms to a historical stereotype: each artistic or social class, each age bracket, has its own city districts, its own restaurants, its own dinner parties. Paris is the city par excellence of permanent cliques, aloof and wary of any hint of Otherness. We don’t even realize anymore how many boundaries these Parisian micro-worlds have created. This is true for all groups: the art world, the world of literature, of cinema, etc. And at the core, each of these little worlds divides infinitely into even smaller families, microscopic worlds that look down on each other, criticize each other, ignore each other. This is true for all of us. Myself included. And more often than not, you end up just alone in Paris. Is that how it is everywhere with social networks?

Like all Western capitals, for years now Paris has been emptying out at its center. Paris is becoming a desert. At the root of this, there lies a dynamic of speculative investment that no politician has tried to call into question. And this dynamic reaches the height of cruelty when refugee camps have to set themselves up along the Canal Saint Martin, at the Porte de la Villette, and at the northern limits of Paris (the 18th and 19th arrondissements) in conditions so squalid that they are regularly condemned by human rights organizations: malnutrition, illness, violence. Note that the French state has cynically played a large role in this. You have to show refugees that coming to France is hell, make them understand that here in the “City of Light,” refugees are nothing more than the scraps of a conflict we don’t want to hear about, and a continent (Africa) we are trying to forget.

Paris expels people farther and farther — that’s a fact. But Paris also blocks people, and the youth, in particular. This could prove fatal. Unless they are rich, young people are declining to “go up to the capital,” as they say. It isn’t possible anymore; it’s too expensive. Paris was recently crowned the second-most-expensive city in the world, behind Singapore, according to studies based on the prices of rent, transportation, clothing, food, drink, and utilities. With its one-room apartments that cost roughly as much per month as an entire minimum-wage salary, a majority of French youth are abandoning Paris in favor of other large cities in the provinces, or even Berlin and other eastern European cities (Brussels, Budapest, etc). Even those who might be expected to choose Paris because they live right nearby are going elsewhere. If the Paris City Council doesn’t change its policies, inner Paris will soon be inhabited only by gilded youth attending grandes écoles [the leading universities] and high-tuition universities. Paris will be the world’s biggest condo. It’s a fair bet that the vital energy required by every capital will drop even further.

And yet, things always come to life and thrive at the limits of destruction — that’s the survival principle that animates every living system. Though Paris has stopped living and playing at its center, things are coming alive at its edges. That’s what is happening in cities like Montreuil. It’s true that this suburban city is fairly ugly. For anyone who appreciates Parisian architecture, it can be quite a shock. But Montreuil is trying to escape gentrification, to recreate a local scene: people go dancing at Le Chinois, the movie theater Le Méliès is a low-priced cultural high point, the multimedia libraries are free, and associations are rapidly multiplying. I was skeptical, to tell you the truth, but Montreuil: why not?

I’ve been speaking with the young writer Simon Johannin and his friends. He lives outside Paris in Vitry. He finds Paris impossible. Too expensive. Too empty. For him, the seven-euro glasses of wine, the outrageously expensive tapas, the organic food, and clear consciences are a huge scam. He writes about this in his new book, Nino in the Night (Allia), and also about the parties in the hardcore outskirts, shoplifting, overdosing on five-euro ecstasy. I hear rage beneath these words, but also laughter, a merry lucidity, and a kind of gutter resourcefulness. For him and his friends, it all happens at the periphery. He tells me about the acid techno parties, the PériPate, the warehouse squats, the thousands of youths in front of a sound system for the space of an evening at a party in the middle of nowhere. For them, nights flow from place to place; never mind the names of the parties. The only thing that counts is the vibe.

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[Table of contents]

Purple #31 The Paris issue

Table of contents

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